Masters World Cup puts Muzammal Malik on international stage at last

Athletes tend to dread their 40th birthdays. They view the milestone as an expiration date, as a final signal to end their playing careers and transition into something more sedentary.

Muzammal Malik never got that memo. Now, at 45 years old, the Stevenson assistant field hockey coach isn't simply continuing his playing career. He is realizing a longtime dream.

Later this month, Malik will represent the United States at the inaugural Masters World Cup in Canterbury, England. He will join 17 other Over-45 men's national team members in one common cause: proving that U.S. men's field hockey can compete against the world's top powers.

"If we win two games, then we'll go to the semifinal," said Malik, who expects to start at center forward when the games begin Aug. 14. "And at that point, we'll have a chance. We can't miss on our chances."

Malik should know. He still remembers narrowly missing the cut for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The then-17-year-old, who becamePakistan's youngest junior national team member just two years earlier, was overlooked in favor of more seasoned senior players.

While he remained in Pakistan, his home country captured gold on the world's biggest stage.

Malik was crushed. He desperately wanted to stand on that medal podium, to experience the pomp and splendor of the Olympic Games. He envisioned following in the footsteps of his uncle, who represented Pakistan at the 1948 Summer Games in London, and introduced him to the sport when he was 6 years old.

"That's why I've always dreamed to come play World Cup and come play Olympic Games," Malik said.

Little did he know, it would take nearly 30 years for part of that dream to become reality.

Malik continued to balance his national team commitments with course work after the Olympic letdown and graduated from the University of the Punjab with an economics degree in 1988. Nine years later, unsatisfied with the athletic and professional opportunities in Pakistan, he moved stateside. He figured he could help the sport grow in the United States, that his expertise would be valued in a less saturated market for field hockey.

After a stint in Chicago, Malik coached at Maryvale, Friends and St. Paul's. He also won two national championships as a club coach and founded a private summer camp.

But even as his coaching career blossomed, Malik never lost the desire to compete. He stayed active and played regularly in local tournaments and showcases.

Given the fraternal nature of the U.S. men's field hockey community, it was only a matter of time before Team USA took notice and offered him opportunities to play with the national squad.

The only problem? Malik wasn't a U.S. citizen, and therefore didn't meet the basic requirements to join Team USA.

Not willing to miss another chance to compete internationally, Malik took and passed the citizenship exam in 2009. He then had to wait nearly three years before U.S. field hockey announced its participation in the Masters World Cup, finally giving him the opportunity to represent his adopted home on the world stage.

"You just have to have the chance and go for it," Malik said. "I thought I could do it and I did it."

Since officially learning of his addition to the Over-45 men's national team in June, Malik has focused on his endurance and fitness. He trains at the University of Maryland's Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex with friends and teammates twice a week, and spends his other days jogging, swimming and coaching.

It might not be a regimen typical of a world-class athlete, but then again, few aspects of the Masters World Cup are ordinary.

Naturalized citizens such as Malik constitute nearly a third of the U.S. roster. Many of the squad's members haven't played hockey competitively in more than a decade. And the players won't have a chance to practice together until they arrive in England.

For a program already dealing with limited resources, such setbacks won't make winning any easier.

"I think that we're going to be considered the underdogs of the tournament," said Jeremy Roberts, a 49-year-old statistician at theU.S. Census Bureauwho will join Malik on the forward line in Canterbury. "But I think that we feel strongly about ourselves, and I think we're going there to compete and not just have fun. So I think we're going to be there to surprise some people."

But no matter how the United States fares in England, don't expect Malik to be deterred. He might be middle-aged, but he's hardly ready to focus solely on coaching. Not after waiting nearly three decades to reach the pinnacle of his playing career.

"I love to play hockey. Hockey is my passion," Malik said. "I want to play for at least another five years."

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